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Why Are We Better At Recalling More Emotional Events?

Author:NeuroGym Team

What You Need To Remember About Emotional Memories

Emotional Memories

Emotional memories are easier to recall. We all remember the big days over the small ones. Why is that? Well, it turns out it’s all about how our brains process emotions and memories.

Let’s take a look.

The Important Brain Parts to Know

First things first, there are two parts of the brain you need to know about. These are the amygdala and the hippocampus.

These two sections of the brain are located near each other in the temporal lobe. They are both part of the limbic system in the brain, which is the system that controls our behavioral and emotional responses.


The amygdala plays a major role in emotional responses, in particular the emotions of fear, anxiety, and aggression. These emotions were key to survival in the days of early humans and contribute to what is known as the fight-or-flight response. If you are faced with a stressful situation—for example, you are a caveman being confronted by a predator—your amygdala will tell you to either stay and fight or run away, depending on your survival needs. Nowadays, we generally aren’t faced with saber-toothed tiger-related confrontations, but we still have this response in stressful scenarios.

Unfortunately, when overwhelmed, our brains are subject to the amygdala hijack. When we are subject to consistent, stressful situations we can become overwhelmed with feelings of fear and anxiety as well as aggression, and so our amygdala goes into overdrive. Needless to say, we don’t exactly behave rationally in these moments!

As well as emotional regulation, the amygdala contributes to decision making and memory.


The hippocampus is very important for turning short-term memory into long-term memory. In illnesses which involve memory impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus suffers damage. Studying the hippocampus can help identify cognitive decline. Like the amygdala, there is one hippocampus in each hemisphere.

The amygdala and hippocampus are two parts of the brain which are vital for processing emotions and for remembering things, so naturally, when it comes to emotional memories, they play a huge role.

How Memory Works

Memory is a complicated process, but is also a very important one. In simple terms, it’s the way the brain takes on board and stores information, keeps it, and then brings it up again later. Our memories are not perfect, and we can easily forget things and remember something incorrectly.

The general consensus is that there are three types of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Sensory memory is immediate sensory information, such as what you see and hear. Short-term memory is your active memory and helps you recall what is currently happening. This then becomes long-term memory and is stored for the future.

But how does our brain actually make a memory? It all happens in the neurons. The brain receives information and encodes it before storing it. When we remember something, the neurons that stored the information are reactivated. The more we recall information, the stronger the link between the neurons that store it gets. So, next time you’re studying for a test, keep it up! Because the more you repeat the information the easier it will come back to you.

You may wonder why you don’t just remember everything. Sometimes information isn’t stored correctly (which makes sense because you don’t need to remember everything), and sometimes our brains fail to retrieve information. In severe cases, memory loss can be caused by illnesses like dementia.

How We Process Emotions

As we’ve seen, memory and emotions are dealt with in the limbic system. But first off, what is an emotion? They are different to moods and feelings, and can be understood as complex reactions that involve an experience, a behavior, and physiology. There’s a bit of debate over what the order in which we process emotions is, but we know that when we do, the process involves:

  • Our own subjective experience. Since we are all a bit different we will all experience things in a slightly different way. We all have our own fears and biases and likes and dislikes, which will impact how we perceive our experiences. Even if two people are involved in the same thing happening, they will experience it differently.

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  • Our physiological response. Physiology is how our bodies function. All our systems and cells work together and behave differently depending on how we feel. For example, if you feel very sad you may have that pit-in-your-stomach feeling, but if you are very excited your heart may start to race.
  • Our behavior. We all act differently depending on the situation. Our behavior is how we tell others how we feel. Strong emotions can cause us to act in strange ways.

There is a lot of debate in the scientific community over how many emotions we have. The debate often comes down to whether differences between emotions are based on our actual biology or sociological factors, like how they are perceived.

Why We Recall Emotional Memories

So, we know how memories and emotions work, but how do they relate to each other? A recent study has provided evidence that the brain is more active when reminded of an emotional memory, rather than an unemotional one. This explains why we tend to be better at recalling emotional events.

Emotional Memories

The study in question was carried out by a team led by Dr. Joshua Jacobs, who is an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University. The amygdala and hippocampus, which we looked at earlier, have been found to mark memories with emotional tags—in the same way there are keyword tags on YouTube videos. This explains why, when you feel sad, you tend to remember more sad things; when you are angry at someone, you tend to remember things about them that make you mad; and when someone makes you happy, you remember good things about them.

In this study, the scientists gathered words that were considered emotional and nonemotional. This was done through crowdsourcing. Words like “dog” were considered emotional, why words like “chair” were not. The team then asked epilepsy patients to recall the words while monitoring their brain’s electrical activity, specifically the activity in the amygdala and hippocampus.

The results showed that there is a higher frequency of electrical energy in the circuit involving the amygdala and hippocampus when the subjects were recalling emotional words compared to nonemotional words. That was a mouthful, so to put it simply: The brain was more active when the subjects were recalling emotionally charged words then mundane words. The team of scientists carried out further testing to see if this activity actually had a bearing on memory, and so they performed the test with the patients, this time while applying electrical stimulation to the hippocampus for some of the words. They found that this had a negative impact on the subjects’ ability to remember the words.

In short, the study gives us reason to believe that we remember emotional events better than nonemotional ones because the neurons in the amygdala and hippocampus are more active. Given that these two parts of the brain are key for both memory and emotion, there is reason to believe that they prioritize emotional memories.

Emotional Ties Can Help Memories

Have you ever found that on a Sunday night ahead of a work week you’ve been sitting around telling yourself that you are really going to go for it this week? That you’re going to get up early, eat healthy, exercise loads, work hard, be really sociable, and do it all with a big smile on your face? It all seems so possible the night before. And then, Monday morning rolls around. It’s early and you’re tired, suddenly you’ll give up your career for an extra 15 minutes in bed, and you can’t bear the thought of making eye contact with the person making you your coffee.

Why do you think that is? Why is it so much easier to set goals then actually achieve them? Ask yourself, when you set goals and make plans, are you emotionally invested? If you’re not, they probably slip your mind. In times of stress, it’s easy to forget what the big picture is, but if we can keep our goals in mind and remember the reason we are doing something, it can help us see the forest from the trees. So, next time you set goals for yourself, make sure you get a little bit emotional over it!

Vision Board Tips

A great way of remembering your goals is by making yourself a vision board. A vision board can help remind you what you are striving for and what you want. Basically, what you need to do is think about what you want to achieve, where you want to be (your vision), and make a physical representation of it. You can use images or text, whatever you feel works for you!

Here are four fantastic vision board tips:

  • Make it unique to you! These are your goals so make sure it’s all about you.
  • Think short-term and long-term! Make sure you give yourself little things you can get to and achieve on your way to the big goals.
  • Get colorful! Use an eye-catching array of images to keep yourself interested.
  • Put it where you can see it! You want to remember this, so make sure it’s in plain sight.

In Summary

Our brains are hardwired to put emotional memories first. The memory centers in our brain actually become more active when we recall emotional events. So, when you are setting important goals you want to remember, it will help to use a vision board to keep the important things in mind!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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